Providing Support to Employees With Serious Health Conditions

When an employee has a serious health condition, a certain level of accommodation is legally required. However, an employer’s obligation doesn’t stop there. Every person with health issues has their own needs, which may change over time.

Building and supporting employee wellness in the workplace means using effective communication tools, supporting employees by helping them access information, providing flexible work opportunities, and staying attuned to their changing needs.

Confidentiality, Empathy, Openness, and Support (CEOS)

Fostering a positive workplace culture is essential. CEOs, as well as management, needs to embrace the importance of CEOS. This acronym stands for confidentiality, empathy, openness, and support — the necessary foundation to build trusting relationships on. These tools can help you communicate with your employees about health challenges and support them:

  • Confidentiality: The last thing you want is a distrustful employee who ghosts you and fails to communicate, and the last thing an employee wants is to lose their job due to health issues or needing time off for appointments at the doctor’s office. By ensuring confidentiality when discussing healthcare concerns, you provide a foundation for better communication.
  • Empathy: When an employee faces a healthcare crisis, they may feel conflicted. They want to feel heard and understood, but they also need to remain professional and carry out work obligations. Many employees simply quit or find themselves laid off after facing a health crisis, so they may feel that it’s a risk to have a conversation with you about health-related topics. You can retain an employee’s trust by showing empathy. Listen actively and ensure you understand their needs and concerns by summarizing and confirming. A little empathy can go a long way.
  • Openness: Openness means you’re ready to support your sick employees when they come to you. This involves preparation. It’s also about how open the employee wishes to be about their illness. Some may find help in sharing details about their struggle, while others will wish to remain extremely private about it.
  • Support: Confidentiality, empathy, and openness are paths to support. If you’ve managed to implement these objectives, you can offer support to the employee. The best thing you can do here involves asking the employee what they need and helping them find a solution you can employ.

Understanding Invisible Illnesses

Invisible illnesses are especially important for managers and HR professionals to understand. Especially when it comes to chronic health pain and related conditions, you can’t always see that someone is in pain or understand their pain level.

When individuals suffer from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis or fibromyalgia, they may experience periods of remission (when there is little to no pain), as well as flare-ups when symptoms are at their worst. For some, this status can change in a matter of hours, and factors like the weather or office temperature are not-so-obvious contributors to pain for some patients.

Regular treatments for some conditions can create more pain in the short-term to improve health overall. Examples include physical therapy and chemotherapy.

Many employees facing invisible illnesses, including digestive illnesses like GERD, also need to make significant lifestyle changes, including new medications. Further, new diets and exercise routines can impact how employees relate to family and friends — and they may entail a real adjustment period for the employee.

Overall, managing chronic health conditions is different than curing them. Accepting major life changes after being diagnosed with a chronic health condition can be traumatizing, and finding specific solutions for pain management is often a challenging road.

Mental Health Considerations

One in five people have mental health issues, and these are not immediately obvious. Does your company have a policy allowing for mental health days? What do you do to take mental wellness as seriously as physical health? Thinking ahead can help you support employees in this regard.

Mental health conditions often accompany serious physical health conditions. Dramatically changing pain levels, various medications, and the strain of being sick is very taxing on the mental health of people with physical illnesses. Plus, it’s not always obvious: Many car accident survivors develop PTSD, so even the act commuting into work can be extremely stressful for them.

Three out of four PTSD patients respond well to medical marijuana, but many businesses are a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to marijuana use. Does your company policy on drug testing accommodate employees suffering from mental health issues or chronic pain?

The Insurance Problem

If you’ve ever been sick while covered by employer-sponsored health insurance, you likely understand how defeating and demoralizing it can be to deal with the insurance company. This problem magnifies when you have a serious condition like cancer.

To help employees access their insurance, make sure you have the insurance company’s contact information on your employee portal and in your welcome materials. Ensure this information is clear when you provide employees with any information about benefits packages as well.

While you aren’t customer service for the insurance company, survey your employees routinely. Stay aware of recurring gripes about the health insurance coverage and attempts to communicate with the insurer.

Human Resource Technology

Especially for larger organizations, human resource technology is crucial to supporting employees with health conditions. Provide a centralized location that harbors documentation and contact information for employer-sponsored insurance. Include contact information for the National Suicide Prevention Hotline — not only to provide the resource, but to show that your organization values conversations around mental health.

Software tools like Zenefits and Bamboo HR allow you to provide digital resource centers to your employees. Additionally, many employees struggling with serious health conditions have a more challenging time with professional development. Your digital resource center can provide a framework for employees to learn about and express interest in new positions, participate in self-training, and provide feedback on whether they feel you’re using their skills fully, which is crucial for neurodiverse employees who require direct feedback.

Managing Remote Employees

The most common accommodation for employees with serious health conditions is work-at-home flexibility. In the United States, 36 million people miss work due to pain at least once per year. Most of these workers lose between four and five hours per week due to pain issues, and most chronic pain sufferers feel like they are not effectively managing their pain alone or with the help of a doctor.

For a chronic pain patient, working at home can mean the difference between missing work and showing up. For the person having a panic attack every time they get in the car due to a recent car accident, a temporary work-at-home solution not only enables them to work but shows you have empathy for their experience.

Off-site employees can interface with on-site teams easily by leveraging tools like:

  • Skype for Business: This provides face-to-face and text-based communication instantly.
  • Time-tracking tools: Time-tracking software allows all employees to log in and out electronically, preventing the need for micromanagement, especially for at-home workers.
  • Project management tools: Programs like Trello and Asana allow employees in various locations to work with one another to complete pieces of projects.

With communication, compassion, and reliance on technological resources, you can support employees facing serious health conditions and enable continued productivity through flexibility. Only then will you reap the benefits on employee engagement.

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